The Bad Boy of Business Wants You to Be Good

UPDATED: July 9, 2012
PUBLISHED: July 9, 2012

In which universe would you predict that the same man who brought the Sex Pistols to the masses would go on to start and lead more than 300 companies in 34 countries worth a combined total of $21 billion in revenue? And even if you could envision that, how would you expect this same person to decide that—at the core of all these companies—there should be an element of world-saving and social good? You might know Sir Richard Branson for this stunt or that world record, but there’s much more that he wants to accomplish, and he wants you to do the same with your company, too.

Branson has a lot to say on leadership. He’s published several books on it, but in his latest work, Screw Business as Usual, this showman’s showman has pushed harder than ever to highlight that he feels a core responsibility of leaders is to consider a global view, no matter how local or otherwise their businesses may be. This view, seven years in the making, as he says, is worth considering.

He has an easy smile, mischievous eyes, and a rogue’s long hair and goatee. Oh, and he owns and lives on his own island. If you look up success, in my dictionary, anyway, there’s a big full-color (probably foldout) picture of Branson. It’s only right that he is pushing for you to align your leadership principles with his, at least in this regard: The world needs saving and your company needs a leader who thinks beyond the stock price or the success of your store’s front counter.

Branson’s Virgin Unite foundation states that its mission is to “connect people and entrepreneurial ideas to make change happen. To help revolutionise the way government, business and the social sector work together—business as a force for good.” The first spark of this concept came from a simple way to remind everyone in his companies that this was everyone’s business, and not just the work of nonprofits and charities.

“When someone mentioned that the circumference of the earth is 24,902 miles, Capitalism 24902 was born!” This is his term for how he wants other C-level folks to think about business going forward. “[It’s] very simple really, it does what it says on the tin—that every single business person has the responsibility for taking care of the people and planet that make up our global village, all 24,902 circumferential miles of it,” Branson explains.

Core Principle, Not a Side Order

The first point you should realize when it comes to his leadership style is that Branson is fond of moving a strong brand and value DNA across all his pursuits, instead of keeping those concepts in a silo. This goes for all aspects of the business. The Virgin brand stands for many things, including a value for the money you spend, quality and fun. Branson has somehow mastered the ability to translate that sense of quirky not-quite-typical excellence across many verticals, from video games to mobile phones to airlines to health clubs. And now, more than ever, he is trumpeting his belief that business should also be a force for good and should help solve the world’s major issues.

Yes, there’s a standalone foundation, Virgin Unite. But this is more of a way of educating and informing non-Virgin organizations on how they can participate as well. In Branson’s leadership playbook there’s room for interpretation of his branding and vision, but there’s also the need to nurture this world-changing mindset in all of his business units.

We’ll talk more about his social business goals in a moment, but first, how does someone lead an organization that stretches a unified brand essence across diverse companies such as a bank, bookstores, music stores and festivals, mobile telephones, the first commercial space travel company, and, oh yeah, that big airline?

If you run your own business, you know that keeping the ball rolling on even two projects inside the same company can be a challenge. What does it take to be the kind of leader who inspires and develops armies of talent, and still cares about the details down to the salt and pepper shakers on his planes?

From a very young age, I had to learn the art of delegation, because I’m inquisitive and I love to do new things, but obviously, if you’re doing new things, you can’t do everything yourself,” Branson said when we sat down to talk leadership and business. For every one of the businesses in the Virgin family of companies, he is quick to point out that a strong leadership team with its own autonomous capabilities is vital. Yes, he provides a lot of little touches on how the experience works from back to front, but Branson works with the strength of his teams. As an example of those “little touches,” I must point out that he hates wearing ties.

“I often have a pair of scissors in my top pocket to go cutting people’s ties off. It is time to say goodbye to the tie,” he wrote in one blog post. “Why was the tie ever invented? Everyone in business looks the same and dresses the same. I’m sure they only exist because bosses, after being forced to wear ties all their life, are determined to inflict the same fate on the next generation.”

But as we mentioned, Branson believes that he has to trust his team. Virgin Money had to push back on his insistence on not wearing ties and formal clothing, pointing out that in the banking world, this is almost a requirement, and that most of the people in Virgin Money feel more comfortable so attired. Branson acquiesced, and so there’s one of his 300 businesses where the scissors don’t come out to cut ties.

How Do You Become a Better Leader?

When you run 300 companies, you are a leader of leaders. Branson and his senior team are in the business of creating people who can build and manage teams that will execute on his ideas, but that will also innovate and improve on everything he’s conceived. I asked him for advice on being a better leader.

“One of the best bits of advice I can give other leaders is to try and put yourself out of business. Try and find people to take over 99 percent of what you do, which will then free you up to think about the bigger picture.”

Branson believes strongly that your role as leader is to empower the people you’ve put in charge of the business. With that 99 percent of your time that people take off your hands, you’re left with a little extra time. What do you do with that?

“Most likely, you’ll come up with ways of helping the person you put in charge in a better way than you would have done had you tried doing it yourself.”

Potential Clash of Leadership and Personality

The word personality, if you slow down to look at it, means one’s personal nature, one’s way of being. Corporations aren’t exactly well-known for allowing one’s personality to stay intact. I asked Branson about how one leads in a way that encourages personality and, dare I say it, individuality.

“I do think a lot of things stem from the top, which is why new bad leaders introduced into a company can destroy a whole ethos very quickly. It’s so important to find leaders who genuinely care about people to run the companies.”

Branson’s sense of adventure and fun also permeates all he does and creates. There are his famous hot-air balloon successes and mishaps, and his love of breaking records. (He apparently tried to be the best at nighttime miniature golf at the Black Light Mini Golf course in Australia. He didn’t get the gold, but he did come in at 4 under par.)

Publicity seems to seep out of Branson in all he does. He has a quick eye for making happenstance into a larger story. There was the time he launched a blimp making fun of the British Airways-sponsored London Eye Ferris wheel when it seemed impossible to erect. (The balloon read: “BA Can’t Get It Up!”) He holds the world record for the fastest crossing of the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle, too.

Given all his skill, at work and at play, “You [still] do need a fair share of luck in your life, as well as hard work,” he told me. On the same day Virgin Money began a sponsorship deal with the football (we call it soccer) team Newcastle United, Newcastle beat Manchester United, thus splashing Virgin Money-branded jerseys all over the sports pages and TV shows. Yes, luck is a great friend to have alongside your leadership efforts, but with a chance at getting that kind of free publicity, Branson was courting, not just waiting for, Lady Luck in that situation—and probably in plenty of others as well.

The Leader in 360 Degrees

I asked Branson how he kept fitness a priority in his life while overseeing 300-plus companies. Kite surfing, he happily pointed out, is a reasonably inexpensive sport. “You don’t have to own your kite. You can learn how in a few hours. And then, you’re on your way.” Now, not many of us can take that advice. It’s easier when you live on a little island where there’s daily tennis, kite surfing with Larry Page from Google, and more. But his second answer was useful to those of us who don’t live on our own islands.

“I like to have challenges to work toward,” Branson says, pointing to his marathon, his triathlon and other “build-up-to-an-event” experiences.

Family is also tremendously important to this husband and father of two. Branson formally tied the knot with his longtime companion, Joan, in 1989, after Holly, then 8, suggested they marry (they also have a son, Sam). The ceremony was held on Branson’s 74-acre Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands.

Weaknesses and Strengths

Branson pointed to his dyslexia more than once throughout the interview as a challenge that lent itself to teaching him new strengths. In one instance, he said that having great managers to run the details of a business stemmed from this. Where others might look at their personal differences as a disability, it was clear that Branson simply saw that his entrepreneurial bent was much better served when detail-oriented people could handle the literal i-dotting and t-crossing.

Even if he was OK at the details, Branson’s genius clearly lies in thinking, not just living, large. On his Google+ page, Branson took a photo of the moon from Necker Island and labeled it “future site of a Virgin Hotel.”

“I love to dream big. I love to try to make those dreams become reality. And sometimes, I throw curveballs into the air, like, ‘let’s start a spaceship company,’ and maybe not being completely serious initially, and then it starts catching on, and you have to try and make it reality.

“If you’re out there flying a kite, some of those kites will stay in the air, and some will crash down, but it will always be fun in the process.”

As we talked, Branson’s pattern for how he grows his businesses emerged. It seems to be a three-step process: 1) Dream. 2) Discuss. 3) Find the right people. His ideas start as dreams or “why hasn’t anyone… ?” moments, which then lead him into discussions and getting the opinions of others, sometimes experts and sometimes just confidants. The next question, always, is people. Richard Branson knows that he cannot be successful without team after team of quality people, the best he can find.

Though maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me, it did. I think of Branson as an idea person, but he’s through and through the kind of leader who considers the team it will take to make a dream work properly.

One point to be made about Branson’s management style: He isn’t interested in hearing what he can’t do. He wants to understand only what he can do. That “yes-minded” planning method can decide how well your team will help you implement a dream.

Stop Saving, Start Reinventing

Branson’s latest book, Screw Business As Usual, outlines the broader brush strokes of putting together a business that seeks both profit and a greater good. He has always had a mind for doing what’s right while profiting, but in this book, he does a great job of laying out some challenges that face the world today, plus explaining some of the paths companies and individuals might take to address them.

This, in my mind, is the best of his work as a leader: He is following a well-traveled tradition of earning his place at the table, and then sharing his feast with others. If you want to consider your own alignment with Branson’s forward-thinking vision of social business, here’s just one of the many concepts put forth in his new book:

“We all need to start looking beyond the emergencies, to stop constantly trying to save the world and instead look at reinventing how we live in the world.”

The sentiment is simple. Instead of aid, help people rebuild. In this chapter lies one of my favorite stories about the kinds of people Branson attracts:

One day I was visiting Ulusaba [Branson’s private game reserve in South Africa] when I heard someone calling my name. “Mr Richard,” she said. It was a woman from the village, dressed in a KwaZulu gown of bright reds and yellows. “I’ve heard you are a very generous man. Can you lend me money to buy a sewing machine?”

I’ve been asked for money hundreds of times over the last 30 years, but rarely with such directness. You’ve heard of the elevator pitch? This was the elephant-pool pitch. She told me she was a talented seamstress but that she needed cash to buy a sewing machine to get her business going.

“So how much do you need?”

“Three hundred dollars would be enough,” she explained. “And, what is more, I’ll repay it within three months and employ six people full-time.” The woman’s determination and ambition were fantastic. So was her focus: She knew exactly what she wanted and why. She got her $300.

It’s in this spirit that Branson feels we must invest our efforts. At first blush you might see this as a story about philanthropy in developing nations. This story—squint at it—exists inside many companies today. Are we paying for aid or investing in reinvention?

It’s difficult enough to think about mastering the leadership skills it requires to launch and run more than 300 businesses in 34 countries. Maybe it’s easier to investigate the concept of adding social responsibility and world problem-solving to the DNA of your own organization. Branson would certainly welcome the help. There’s a lot of world to save, and somehow, he is only one man, no matter how it appears.

Chris Brogan is the CEO of Human Business Works and a six-time New York Times best-selling author.